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H.J. JACKSON The Immoderation of Samuel Johnson I take for my text a phrase of Boswell's. It comes up in his report of Johnson's reaction to the news that Thomas Percy was writing a history of the wolf in Great Britain. Johnson thought he should work on the rat instead: '"I should like to see The History ofthe Grey Rat, by Thomas Percy, D.D., Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty," (laughing immoderately), (Life, 2:455). Now I am concerned neither with wolf and rat, nor with the political implications of the joke, but with Johnson's laughter, or rather with the fact that Boswell judges Johnson - not for the first time - by choosing the word 'immoderate' to describe it. He has also said that Johnson was 'immoderately fond' of romances as a boy, implying that they damaged his mind (Life, 1:49); and he has described Johnson's disgusting table manners, observing with apparent reluctance that Johnson 'was not a temperate man either in eating or drinking. He could refrain, but he could not use moderately' (Life, 1:468). Eventually, that observation will become the basis for a general judgment: 'Every thing about his characterand manners was forcible and violent; there never was any moderation' (Life, 4:72). Such statements as these are to me interesting in two ways. They may indeed provide a sort of key to Johnson's personality, and they exhibitan awesome shibboleth, the value of moderation, at work.1 As far as Johnson's character is concerned, other instances of his rejection of the moderate will occur to all who take an interest in him. He himself wrote in a playful spirit to Mrs Thrale, 'have you not observed in all our conversations that my genius is always in extremes, that I am very noisy, or very silent; very gloomy, or very merry; very sour or very kind?' (Letters, 2:377-8). Boswell evidently encouraged this 'genius' of Johnson 's, though he acknowledged publicly, in the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, that on one occasion at least Johnson's 'exaggeration' made him uneasy when strangers were by (Life, 5:128). When Boswell flatteringly said to Johnson 'that all his thoughts were on a great scale,' Johnson replied, 'Depend upon it, Sir, every man will have as fine a thing as he can get; as large a diamond for his ring' (Life, 4:179). My own favourite is their debate about the choice of a wife. Boswell mentions a man who has prudently declared that he will not marry a pretty woman; Johnson protests, 'No, Sir, I would prefer a pretty woman, unless there are UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 59, NUMBER 3, SPRING 1990 SAMUEL JOHNSON 383 objections to her' (Life, 4:131). Nor was Johnson simply baiting Boswell or contradicting by habit; he reaffirms this position elsewhere. Mrs Thrale records a conversation on the same subject, in which Johnson speaks scornfully of the man who rejects beauty and other exceptional qualities: 'My prudent Friend therefore picks up an Animal whose coarseness disgusts him, whose Ignorance distresses, and whose narrowness perplexes him; and thinks it amazing that so dispassionate a Choice produces so little Felicity' (Thraliana, 1:181). Idler 100 depicts the same sort of fool, a man who methodically seeks out a wife of a 'happy mediocrity,' and is miserable ever after (Works, 2:306). The example of the choice of a wife conforms to the general pattern ofJohnson's immoderation, namely that his preference is for excess rather than deficiency, 'as large a diamond for his ring' as possible. (An exception occurs in the matter of food and drink, where it appears, by Boswell's testimony, that Johnson could abstain as well as gluttonize.) The commonplace terms in which we consider moderation emerge from even so brief and anecdotal an introduction to the subject as this: 'moderation' goes with 'prudence'; it exists between the extremes of deficiency and excess. But let us go at this scientifically, that is, historically. When he describesJohnson as characteristicallyimmoderate, Boswell is invoking a powerful cultural norm. It helps us to see the significance of Johnson's rebellion if we are aware of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 382-398
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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